Pack Art Backstory: Campfire Rudbeckia

A discussion with artist Lucy Nguyen

Amember of the sunflower family, Rudbeckia hirta—sometimes called "Black Eyed Susan" or "Brown Betty"—is common enough–some might even say too common. But just as a few dry twigs set alight have the power to transfix and mesmerize, Campfire Rudbeckia, with its stunning two-toned petals, unleashes the beauty and potential of Rudbeckia hirta.

The story of this variety begins at Blackbird Rise Farm in Palermo, Maine, where these flowers were found growing at the intersection between cultivated farm field and wild meadow. For farmers Daniel MacPhee and Corinne Wesh, the golden petals brushed with burnt sienna evoked the play of light and shadow around a flickering campfire. Recognizing the specialness of this variety, they decided to save the seed and share it with others.

Artist Lucy Nguyen’s illustration incorporates elements of Blackbird Rise Farm and transforms them into a nighttime scene at the base of a mountain range, where a field of Rudbeckia glows by campfire light. A mysterious figure sits contentedly by the fire, dressed in a cape that ends in tail feathers while a red-winged blackbird flies overhead. “I wanted to convey the feeling of being at peace in nature,” Lucy says, “and the unique bond that one can form by being in tune with their surroundings.”

Hailing from the Washington D.C. area, Lucy is currently pursuing a BFA in illustration from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Using primarily digital techniques, her illustrations combine fantasy, storytelling, personal identity and culture—resulting in new landscapes filled with diverse inhabitants. “I’m really passionate about consuming, exploring, and creating narratives,” she says, “and I feel like my work as an illustrator is the best vehicle for the stories I want to put out into the world.”

As storyteller, Lucy is the perfect match for Campfire Rudbeckia. Since the dawn of time, people have gathered around campfires to tell new, often fantastical stories about the world–and our place within it. “I enjoyed putting a subtle fantastical spin on it,” Lucy says, adding, “I draw a lot of inspiration from my experiences as a queer person and a Vietnamese-American, and it’s rare for it to not bleed into my work in even a small way.”

Character studies, fashion, and narratives based in otherworldly landscapes are fuel for Lucy’s fantasy illustration and plot lines, and a way of opening up the genre to diverse perspectives: “I love seeing more fellow LGBTQ+ and BIPOC creators expanding the boundaries of the genre–and mainstream media as a whole,” she says, noting the importance of inclusiveness “for current and future generations.”

Of course, artists and writers have a history of using self-portraiture and autobiography to correct imbalances in representation. As primary conduits of cultural values and norms, storytelling and imagery powerfully shape our views of the world and who we see as a protagonist. Diverse representation in art and storytelling reflects our complexity, and allows our seeming contradictions to become a source of illumination–just as friction creates fire.

Straddling the edge between wild and cultivated, light and shadow, fantasy and reality, the story of Campfire Rudbeckia reminds us to get comfortable with complexity and find beauty in the non-binary. We are, after all, many things; as Walt Whitman famously wrote in Leaves of Grass, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large and contain multitudes.)”

As a genus of the Asteraceae family, Rudbeckia’s composite flowers also contain multitudes—producing dense heads of tiny flowers surrounded by bracts, fooling the eye into seeing a singular flower where there are, in fact, many. “For Asteraceae,” our co-founder Ken Greene says, “these complex non-binary inflorescences we call flowers are the reason the plant family has been so incredibly successful and have radiated out, like the petals and patterns of the flowers themselves, across the globe.”

Relating these observations to the bigger picture, Ken says, “Sometimes in botany, and with animals and humans, we spend too much time trying to fit beings into binary/either-or categories or figuring out why something is the way it is, instead of just accepting them as a whole being.” 

A sense of wholeness and serenity radiates from Lucy’s illustration for Campfire Rudbeckia. “Both the name and the appearance of the variety invoke a feeling of warmth, comfort, and familiarity,” she says, “I hope that a viewer of this piece or a planter of this seed feels like they’re able to find a piece of home among these flowers and in their local natural environments at large.” We are so grateful for her comforting interpretation of this seed story.

Explore more of Lucy Nguyen’s fantasy worlds on her website. For regular updates, follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Or shop her Etsy store here and she'll donate a percentage of the profits to mutual aid in the DC area.

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